Nuku Hiva - We Reach the Marquesas - The Maritime Explorer

French Polynesia

Nuku Hiva – We Reach the Marquesas

In the last post we set sail from Papeete for the tiny atoll of Kauehi in the Tuamotu Archipelago, our first stop on this Adventures Abroad journey to the Marquesas Islands aboard the Aranui 5 passenger/freighter. It was certainly a stark contrast from the volcanic islands of Tahiti and Moorea and provided an inkling of the variety of habitats that collectively make up the vast territory of French Polynesia. We now have to journey over 500 nautical miles (900 + kms.) to our next stop, Nuku Hiva, the first of six Marquesas Islands we will visit on this voyage. Please come along for the adventure.

To get to the Marquesas the Aranui 5 needs a full day and night at sea which I thought might be a bit boring, but was anything but as I described in my post on life aboard a passenger/freighter.

The Marquesas Islands

Map of the Marquesas Islands

This is a map of the Marquesas Islands with Nuku Hiva being at the northern end and clearly the largest of the archipelago, in fact the second largest after Tahiti in all French Polynesia. They are a series of ten volcanic islands that are among the most remote places on the planet. The nearest land mass, Mexico is 3,000 miles (4800 kms.) away. The total population is less than 10,000 people although before European contact it was believed to have been much greater, perhaps as high as 100,000. It is going to be fascinating to see how these few people scattered over many islands literally in the middle of nowhere can maintain any type of modern standard of living.

Very little is known with any definitive certainty about when humans first arrived in the Marquesas. Time lines once assumed it was as early as 100 CE, but newer research using better scientific methods suggests it may have been as late as a thousand years after that. What is known is that pre-European contact, the island’s economies were based upon agriculture, fishing and hunting.

The first documented visit by a European was that of the Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña who arrived in 1595 on an expedition that had set out from Lima, Peru to found a colony in the Solomon Islands that he had ‘discovered’ on a previous voyage. The ships landed at Fatu Hiva and later Tahuata, the smallest of the Marquesas and in a familiar story, at first got along with the Indigenous inhabitants, but ended up slaughtering up to 200 of them before departing. The only lasting legacy was the naming of the islands for the Marquis of Canete, Viceroy of Peru.

Not much happened for another 180 years when Captain Cook, using Mendaña’s charts, was the first to properly document the location of a number of the islands which in turn led to the Marquesas becoming a popular revictualing spot for whaling ships. It was these longer visits by whaling crews that led to the diseases that wiped out almost all of the Indigenous population. The 1926 census revealed that there were only 2,255 people in all of the islands. In other words, the Marquesans came within a whisker of becoming extinct.

Nuku Hiva

Nuku Hiva was not visited by any westerner until 1791 when the French navigator Etienne Marchand landed here. A few years later it had a very unique history directly related to the War of 1812 which may sound bizarre because that was a conflict between the United States and Great Britain fought in North America. A little known fact about that war is that both American and British naval fleets combed the global waters seeking out enemy ships to capture or destroy. In 1813 American Captain David Porter on his ship the USS Essex put in at Nuku Hiva along with nine captured British whaling ships and their crews. He immediately claimed Nuke Hiva for the United States and built a small settlement he called Madisonville after the current President.

What Porter did not know is that he had landed in the middle of Nuku Hiva’s own war between a number of warring tribes. The story of the American involvement and subsequent battles involving up to 5,000 Nuku Hiva warriors is too long to tell in this post but this link to the Nuku Hiva Campaign gives more detail. In the end the U.S. Congress denied Porter’s claim of Nuku Hiva as a United States possession and it ended up as part of French Polynesia.

Nuku Hiva again became known to the outside world in 1846 with the publication of Herman Melville’s first novel Typee which is a fictionalized account of the time he spent on the island after jumping ship from a whaler in 1842. It describes his time as a ‘guest’ of the Typee tribe who just happened to be cannibals. Melville was never sure if during his time with them if he was being fattened up à la Hansel and Gretel for future consumption or if he was a genuine visitor who could leave at any time. You have to read the book to find out the answer. I highly recommend reading it before taking this trip.

One other famous visitor was Robert Louis Stevenson for whom Nuku Hiva was the first Polynesian island he ever set foot on and described in the posthumous 1896 book In the South SeasHere is how he described that experience – “The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart and touched a virginity of sense...” Wow! That’s a pretty high bar RLS has set; let’s find out if we have the same feelings.

This was our first look at Nuku Hiva as the Aranui 5 ran along its rugged coast heading for Taiohae Bay.

Nuku Hiva
Approaching Nuku Hiva

This is a map of Nuku Hiva we were given at the briefing. We got these before visiting every island.

Map of Nuku Hiva

You can see Taiohae Bay near the bottom.

As we entered Taiohae Bay we passed this small sailboat heading out to sea. To my mind you would really need some guts and navigational skills to sail a boat this small all the way to the Marquesas.

Sailboat Leaving Nuku Hiva

As at Kauehi, there was a small welcoming committee awaiting us as we departed the ship which was tied up at a pier in Taiohae Bay.

Nuku Hiva Welcoming Committee
Welcoming Committee

There was also a fleet of white pickup trucks into which we all piled ready to begin our exploration of Nuku Hiva.

Nuku Hiva Transportation

Our first stop was at the Notre Dame Cathedral, the largest church in the Marquesas. Built in 1977 to replace an older church it is a very impressive stone structure for such a small community. The Catholic Church has a very strong grip in the Marquesas and on every island we visited the church was the most dominant structure.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Nuku Hiva
Notre Dame Cathedral

The Marquesan islanders are noted for a number of skills, not the least of which is wood carving. This became apparent as we toured the interior of the cathedral starting with this crucifix.

Carved Crucifix, Notre Dame Cathedral, Nuku Hiva
Carved Crucifix

The pulpit was very elaborate with symbols of the four evangelists below the archangel.

Carved Pulpit

As were the stations of the cross. This is the fourteenth station which is usually the Deposition, but this looks more like the Resurrection to me. These carvings were all made from tamanu trees.

The Resurrection?

In several places the floor was inlaid with what are known as flower stones or in correct geological terms, phonolites. These are an extremely rare type of rock found only on Ua Pou which we will visit on this voyage and in a location in Brazil.

Flower Stones, Notre Dame Cathedral, Nuku Hiva
Flower Stones

Outside the cathedral there was another wood carving, this of a bishop indicating Notre Dame’s significance as a cathedral and not just a parish church.

Bishop of Notre Dame

This is the view looking back from just in front of the bishop. As you can see the two spires are not attached to the church proper and represent quite an interesting and unusual design. The fellow in the foreground who looks like he’s doing a jail break is our guide Martin Charlton.

Notre Dame Cathedral Spires

After finishing our visit to Notre Dame we piled back into the trucks and continued our exploration of Nuku Hiva with a very exciting drive along a surprisingly good but really twisty road to the village of Hatiheu.

Crossing Nuku Hiva
Crossing the Island

The road climbed high over Taiohae Bay and we had this view of the many sailboats at anchor and the Aranui 5 berthed at the pier. This was the same route that Herman Melville and a fellow companion took on foot as they deserted their whaling ship only to fall into the hands of the Typee warriors who resided in the next valley over.

Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva
Taiohae Bay

Hatiheu is a village of just over three hundred people with a very nice location on a small bay with a black volcanic beach.

Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva
Hatiheu Bay


Hatiheu Bay 2, Nuku Hiva
Hatiheu Bay 2

As with Taiohae, the dominant feature of the village is the Catholic church. This one is not as grand as Notre Dame Cathedral, but still very pretty with its face to the sea and back to the green hills of Nuku Hiva.

Hatiheu Church, Nuku Hiva
Hatiheu Church

There were a couple of small moias in Hatiheu which were atop a ceremonial platform of some kind.

Moais at Hatiheu

While we started our visit to Nuku Hiva at a modern structure, our next stop was at a much older place and the antithesis of Catholicism. This is the archaeological site of Kamuihei which was only fully excavated and partially restored in 1998. It is just outside of Hatiheu and given its overall size, of which the photo shows only a portion, was once home to a much larger population than is currently found on Nuku Hiva. This is the tohua of Kamuihei which is the large rectangular area ceremonial plaza found in most French Polynesian sites and around which the houses of the most important persons in the village would be clustered.

Tohua Kamuiheli Archaeological Site, Nuku Hiva
Tohua of Kamuiheli Archaeological Site

This is our English speaking guide from the Aranui 5 who accompanied us on all of our excursions and was very knowledgable about all things Marquesan. He explained that this was a very sacred site and had once been the place where prisoners captured from other tribes were sacrificed and eaten.

Aranui 5 Guide

He then took us to foot of a massive banyan tree that was over six hundred years old and considered to possess mana or supernatural power. Archaeologists found over 200 human skulls here during their excavations. However, today the skulls were on living inhabitants of Nuku Hiva who were dressed in traditional costume and gave us this presentation.

After this stirring display which lasted about fifteen minutes we explored more of the Kamuihei site coming across two sets of petroglyphs, this one depicting sea life. You can plainly see the turtles and fish.

Sea Petroglyph, Nuku Hiva
Sea Petroglyph

The other depicting creatures of the land, albeit not as clearly as the sea petroglyph.

Land Petroglyph, Nuku Hiva
Land Petroglyph

I also came across this dolmen like structure which was the only one of its type I saw in French Polynesia. I don’t know if it was just a coincidence that it looked like the Celtic dolmens that are found throughout Ireland and elsewhere or if it had the same purpose as a burial spot.

Nuku Hiva Dolmen at Kamuihei

After our visit to Kamuihei it was time for lunch we had in an al fresco setting not far from Taipival Bay.

North Side of Taipival Bay

Lunch was a typical Marquesan buffet with root vegetables, pork and fruit. It may not look that appetizing, but trust me it was very good especially washed down with a Hinano beer.

Lunch on Nuku Hiva

After lunch we were driven back to Taiohae and had time to get some cash at an ATM and do some shopping if you wanted to. On the Marquesas cash is king with few of the local crafts people accepting credit or debit cards. We got the cash, but chose not to spend it right away, but instead climbed up Tuhiva Hill which had a number of interesting moias like the one below.

Moai Tuhiva Hill, Nuku Hiva
Moai on Tuhiva Hill

However, the main attraction is a forty foot statue, Tiki Tuhiva which portrays a male warrior on one side and the goddess of tradition and wisdom on the other. It was created in 2017 by local Marquesans and is claimed to be the largest statue in the Pacific.

Tuhiva Monument, Nuku Hiva
Tuhiva Monument

This is the front view with yours truly.

On Tuhiva Hill, Nuku Hiva
On Tuhiva Hill

And lastly from Nuku Hiva is the view from Tuhiva Hill.

Aranui from Tuhiva Hill

Unlike Herman Melville, Alison and I will not jump ship on Nuku Hiva as tempting as it might be. Instead we’ll sail to our next stop on Ua Pou where I hope you’ll join our Adventures Abroad group as we continue our exploration of the Marquesas Islands.

Oh and before I forget – Nuku Hiva is as beautiful a place as previous visitors have claimed.